An ACLU letter to FCC listed student complaints over professor
Academic freedom in universities has been a hallmark of higher education in the United States. Earlier this month, critics questioned whether a college professor overstepped that line.
The American Civil Liberties Union sent a letter Feb. 8 to Fresno City College that demanded the school ensure that all its health science classes teach unbiased and medically accurate information. And since FCC is a “tax supported entity, they are prohibited from religious indoctrination in public education.”
The letter came after some FCC students made complaints that Bradley Lopez, a health professor at FCC, presented anti-gay and religious-based views as “fact.”
The letter gave several examples of Lopez’s statements. It alleged Lopez presented Bible passages as “empirical” fact that life begins at conception, and presented a slide of “homosexual facts” including that homosexuality is a “biological misapplication of human sexuality,” among others.
Lopez is currently still lecturing at FCC and the matter is still under investigation.
In light of the letter sent to FCC last week, the ambiguous line between free speech and unethical statements in the classroom has risen to the surface.
There are many lines to be drawn here, according to staff attorney Elizabeth Gill at the ACLU of Northern California. The ACLU is asserting that the Lopez case is not a matter of free speech, but rather of the Establishment Clause of the 1st Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
“With respect to the Establishment Clause, there are legal tests that have been well established here in the 9th Circuit in California,” Gill said. “When you are engaged in open religious indoctrination, it is a clear establishment clause problem, which is the line that separates church and state.”
Lopez has denied making anti-gay remarks or using the Bible as anything other than a “historical reference” or an optional assignment to “stimulate critical thinking.”
Fresno State philosophy professor Karen Bell, who has done research on hate speech in the context of racism and adjudication of the 1st Amendment, said the U.S. Supreme Court cases restricting freedom of speech do not apply to the facts, as they were reported in The Fresno Bee, in the Lopez case.
Bell said academic freedom does not mean professors can say anything they want.
“Any position argued by a faculty member in a class requires reason and evidence,” Bell said. “Neither academic freedom nor constitutionally guaranteed freedom of speech applies to objectively false statements.”
Bell said that the Lopez case is a case about incompetence, not academic freedom.
“The authority of a professor naturally creates an unequal environment of discourse,” Bell said. “And when assertions create an environment in which some students are asserted to feel inferior by virtue of their race, for example, or sexual preference, the environment becomes discriminatory and thereby a violation of professional ethics.”
According to the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) Web site, recent lower court decisions have ruled that faculty members who speak out on matters affecting their institutions are not protected under the 1st Amendment.
This AAUP advocated for the adoption of a specific policy language designed to ensure the continued protection of academic freedom and shared governance. However, no such document exists.
Fresno State philosophy professor Robert Maldonado, who teaches a course on the New Testament, said some topics like feminism, slavery and gender, are particularly sensitive.
“College should be a creative clash of ideas and it is hard for a class to be completely fair, because it is impossible to cover and explain every single viewpoint,” Maldonado said. “This issue requires responsibility and good judgment and, as humans, we sometimes fail.”
The AAUP has implemented an academic freedom statement that the California State University system endorses, which states: “Teachers are entitled to freedom in the classroom in discussing their subject, but they should be careful not to introduce into their teaching controversial subject matter which has no relation to the subject … their special position in the community imposes special obligations … they should at all times be accurate, should exercise appropriate restraint, should show respect for the opinions of others, and should make every effort to indicate that they are not speaking for the institution.”
Fresno State sociology professor Andrew Jones said, there are clear limits to free speech in the classroom – particularly statements that cause immediate harm to others – and that someone will inevitably be offended.
“Educational attainment is not about having students’ preconceptions and misconceptions reaffirmed by professors,” Jones said. “Critical thinking requires being reflective on one’s own beliefs and ideas about the world, and questioning those beliefs and ideas.”
Fresno State student Omar Parra said that the value of a professor’s academic freedom is important.
“I would like to believe as college students, we are mature enough to accept different points of view,” Parra said. “[In] the vast majority of cases, student’s find a professor’s opinion beneficial. We should not let a few ‘radical’ professors destroy what academic freedom sets to achieve.”